Sword with mysterious past under microscope at QVMAG

Senior Curator of History, Jon, holding a sword from the QVMAG collection.
Senior Curator of History, Jon, holding a sword from the QVMAG collection.


Launceston Mayor Albert van Zetten and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery's Senior Curator of Public History Jon Addison are the unlikely myth-busting duo setting out to topple five pervasive Launceston history myths.

"As we head into 2022 there was a recent discussion in the office about what we'd like to see come to an end this year," Mr Addison said.

"Obviously, the pandemic was a popular answer, as was conflict, poverty, and Channel Nine's Married at First Sight.

"For me personally, I have some historic bugbears that consistently get my goat that I'd like us to be well and truly rid of in 2022."

Mayor van Zetten said history researchers uncovered more about Launceston's fascinating past each year, but some myths were difficult to dislodge from Launceston's collective consciousness.

"Wherever you look in Launceston there are stories just beneath the surface, and they're often absolutely fascinating," Mayor van Zetten said.

"But for various reasons, we see myths crop up about aspects of the city's past that seem to linger and live on, even when they've been disproven.

"One of the great things about the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is that it is a hub for historical research in Launceston, and it provides us some wonderful opportunities to find out more of the facts about the city's past."

The pair's top five myths, in no particular order, are:

Errol Flynn's Sword

"Avast, me hearties, for there is a story that the museum holds a sword supposedly owned by Errol Flynn, which had been inherited from his father," Mr Addison said.

"The sword is purported to have been owned by one of Flynn's ancestors, a man by the name of Brown, who had been one of the soldiers who arrested Governor William Bligh in the 1808 Rum Rebellion in New South Wales.

"The sword that is claimed as being his is of the wrong type and date, and while the soldier named Brown was part of the arresting party, there's little evidence to show Brown was related to the Flynns.

"Still, some people continue to insist that QVMAG has Errol Flynn's sword in its collection, and that the sword was used to arrest William Bligh."

The secret tunnel

"One of the most pervasive myths we encounter is the tale of the alleged secret tunnel linking the courthouse building to the old Launceston gaol site," Mr Addison said.

"This myth had its origin in a plan for a tunnel, but it was only ever a plan and the tunnel was never actually constructed. I'm still asked about this one a couple of times a year, and our media liaison team occasionally receives requests from journalists wishing to gain access to the tunnel.

"Who doesn't love a secret tunnel? It's easy to see why this myth continues to be popular, but alas, it isn't true."

The Princes Square Fountain

"There are actually a few myths about the Princes Square fountain, so we're cheating a bit here," Mr Addison said.

"The stories go that the fountain was mistakenly delivered instead of the one that was ordered by the city. This is false. There is also the story that there is a pineapple on top because the people of Launceston's were too prudish to cope with a naked nymph.

"This myth is all the more galling because there are people in states of undress depicted around the base of the fountain.

"The myths about the Princes Square fountain need to stop — the fountain in the square matches the one that was ordered from France."

The first European ashore

"There is a long-lived story that a man named John Dell was the first European to set foot on the current site of Launceston," Mr Addison said.

"However, Dell didn't arrive in Launceston until about 1818, about 12 years after the foundations of the city were established.

"By all accounts, Dell had a fascinating life, living to the ripe old age of 102 and serving as a time as the Chief Constable of Launceston.

"However, he was not the first European to set foot on the present site of Launceston."

Dicky White was the inspiration for the Johnnie Walker's 'Striding Man' logo

"There is persistent story that the model for Johnnie Walker's famous 'Striding Man' logo was one of Launceston's most infamous sons, the former convict Dicky White," Mr Addison said.

"The story of Dicky White's life is a real rags to riches tale.

"Transported as a convict to New South Wales in 1799, he spent part of his sentence on Norfolk Island and eventually received a land grant in Launceston in 1815. In 1822 he built the Launceston Hotel, which became a real social hub for early Launceston.

"White was a larger than life character who was well-liked, and he loved to dress in the latest fashions.

"However, White died in 1849 and the British illustrator Tom Browne, who went onto design the 'Striding Man' logo, wasn't born until 1870. Browne's logo did not appear on Johnnie Walker bottles until 1908.

"It is almost impossible to conjecture that a publican and auctioneer from Launceston would be known and drawn by an English cartoonist almost 60 years after his death.

"This myth probably arose from a comment in the Launceston Local Studies collection at the Library where a historian, attempting to convey White's love of fashion, compared him to the Striding Man. And I reckon the myth took on a life of its own from there."

Mayor van Zetten encouraged Northern Tasmanians to take advantage of the QVMAG's extended opening hours over summer.

"If you've got an interest in the world around us, there's no better place to visit than a museum," Mayor van Zetten said.

"For the rest of January, both the museum and art gallery sites are open from 10am until 5pm and these sites contain thousands of stories about our world, the universe and our past and future.

"The QVMAG is always worth a visit, and you may even be able to bust some myths of your own."

Issued 21 January 2022.